Towards Cape York

the spanish mackerel

(Friday 3 Nov) After a pleasant second night at Lizard, we had watched the breeze increase, and on waking we hoped we would be able to sail today. In the end it was lucky that we could, as when Pete went over to the resort with the jerries, there was no sign of the guy with fuel. Infuriated, Pete eventually came back to the boat just before 0900, and we packed the Goon Bag away quickly and weighed anchor. Pete’s grumpiness persisted until we left the influence of the island and got in the real breeze, blowing about 12 knots, but of course from directly behind. Despite not being able to sail to our set course, we decided to put up the asymmetric kite, and see what our course looked like sailing about fifty degrees apparent.

It was comfortable, though very hot, and we needed to change our plotted course, but we were making reasonable speed. We needed to monitor carefully, as the Howicks were directly in our path, with shipping routes all around. Biggest challenge of the day so far is finding somewhere cool on board. The key is shade and breeze, so it’s either to leeward of the mast, slightly forward or under the Bimini as far aft as possible. In the former position, you can’t easily monitor the wind and adjust the sails, in the latter you can, but it’s less breezy!

Our end game for today is Cape Melville, which is a stretch goal, though there are several other options along the route. We do want to get to Melville if possible, despite our late start, as this will take us that much further towards our goal, plus it’s the best anchorage of our other options.

We ended up altering our course to Ninian Bay, 20 miles short of Cape M, as we were only making about 6 knots over the ground, but as we were preparing for our second gybe, we noticed the wind picking up towards 15 knots, which is our limit for the kite. We decided to drop the kite before the gybe, as afterwards, we would be navigating a tricky route through the Howicks, with not much sea room if things went pear shaped. The drop went well, and the breeze settled into 15-18 knots, so we definately made the right call on the kite drop. Best of all our speed picked up to over 7 knots, so we eventually made the call to push on to Cape M, even though we would likely get there at dusk. We knew it was an almost full moon, so we would have plenty of moonlight to help.

Whilst the heat did not let up, once we were reaching, the sun was behind the sails, so the whole cockpit became shaded. Everything became more comfortable, and I even had a freshwater shower, which made me feel much better.

One of the best items we have for this part of the trip is “Stanley”, a stainless steel drink bottle, given to us as a leaving present from Kirsty! With huge thanks to Kirsty, it has been a godsend, enabling us to have icy cool water, during these hot, hot, days. We fill Stanley, put him in the fridge next to the evaporator, and when we are filling our drinks bottles, we can use the lovely cold water from Stanley! Bliss! Needless to say, we got through many rounds of Stanley during the afternoon.

Lots of tasks got completed to pass the time – I restitched the rope bag which has been broken since we left Sydney, and fixed the attachment point on the other, broken since a week after we bought it! I cleaned out the veggie cupboard and did cabbage maintenance, pulling off some of the outer leaves and cutting out some ropy bits. I checked the fruit esky, and did my physio exercises. Pete got excited and put the #5 up inside the jib as a staysail, but it didn’t seem to add to our speed!

As the sun sank behind the boulder strewn Cape Melville, we had about ten miles to go til we were anchored, but of course the distance seemed to take forever. What had already been a long day, felt like it was stretching into oblivion, and each mile seemed to take forever to complete. As we turned the corner, avoiding a tug and tow, we expected the breeze to gradually drop and the swell to minimise, but neither of these happened. Even though we saw the breeze down to about 12 knots, by the time we fetched up at our selected anchorage, it was a solid 20 knots, with a short wind chop. Notwithstanding, we anchored and found that once we were settled on the anchor, it was ok, though very windy on deck. Even though the wind was warm, we opened all the windows and stayed below, eating the cold roast lamb and salad left over from last night. It tasted even better, probably because we were both tired and hungry after a long day.

We planned the course for the next day and plotted in the track, hoping the wind would be kind, and not right behind us. The forecast was for East to Southeast 15-20 knots, and whilst the first part of the course would be dead downwind, it looked like we would get a good reach up past the reefs. Our planned stop was to be Morris Island, a tiny sand cay on a large reef, and it was a 60 plus mile day. We decided to set an alarm for 0600 and leave immediately, having coffee and breakfast on the go.

The wind eventually died off a little and we got a relatively good nights sleep, though we were both feeling groggy when the alarm went off at 0600. We weighed anchor as intended, and set off north around the Flinders Group, crossing the expanse of Princess Charlotte Bay and then heading up the inside passage past many reefs and tiny islands. The wind was perfect, around 15 knots, with flat seas, thanks to the reefs protecting us from any build up of swell. This part of the coast is known as the “horror stretch”, because there are long distances between decent anchorages. Most require a good 60 plus miles to find a decent stopover. With this wind, this was not an issue for us, and we made the distance to Morris Is by 1630, in time for a swim before our check in on the HF radio, to report our position to Charlesville Radio.

We had a beer to celebrate being tucked up early, and then Pete got to fishing, while I pottered about getting dinner ready. On checking the veggies, I discovered an exploded capsicum amongst the many I had bought, and had to do a full clear out of the veggie cupboard. Pete asked if I was smoking dope below as the smell from the single capsicum was overpowering, and very much like weed! I seem to have a plethora of capsicum – not sure what my reasoning was on buying so many, and though we are unlikely to run out, we may well be sick of them by the time we reach Darwin!

blue spot emperor

Saturday 4 November was full moon, so we watched a beautiful sunset and then moved to the foredeck to watch the full the full moon rise in a spectacular fashion, through some cloud on the horizon. Just before we started cooking dinner, Pete scored a fish, and this time a blue spot emperor, the perfect size for two. He was scaled, gutted and despatched to the top of the freezer, and would be dinner tomorrow. As we BBQd, the wind seemed to pick up and by the middle of dinner, it was occasionally reaching 25 knots! For some reason, the wind seems related to the tide in these latitudes, and sure enough, after we let out another 10m of scope, the tide reached its height, and the wind abated slowly but surely. It was too windy to eat desert comfortably on deck, so we retired below, and played cribbage, and ate dessert, until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

We had set the alarm for sunrise, to watch the spectacle of the full moon set and the sun rise almost simultaneously. As it turned out, there was a fair bit of cloud on the horizon, so the sun was later, and the moon was still well up, but heading towards its own clouds. The light was beautiful, and we watched both orbs slowly change the colour of our surroundings from silvery grey to various pinks, before everything burst into full technicolor. You simply can’t beat mornings like this. We had time for a coffee before weighing anchor, but got going about 0730, and had breakfast once we were Sailing. It was a little more cloudy at first, which meant the day did not heat up as quickly as previous days, but once the clouds burnt off, the sun was again merciless. We basically had to find shade, and below decks was not pleasant unless we could have some windows open. We took it in turns to have breaks from the sun, using Stanley for plenty of cold water drinks when we could, and doing a bit of steering to keep active. Fortunately it wasn’t too long a day, with the 15 to 20 knots pushing us along smartly, we drew up to Restoration Rock by around 1330. From here, it was a push around the corner of Cape Weymouth, past the island and some attractive beaches, then the next bay opened and we could see Portland Road.

We had both imagined a dry, dusty, low lying area with not much to recommend it. It was completely the opposite! Tucked under the little hill of the headland, was a tiny beach, with a few houses visible. The hill was tall and green and everywhere was lush and tropical. The hill slopes down to mangroves, then the turquoise water of the fringing reef, out to the slightly deeper turquoise where there were a few boats at anchor. We were astonished to get a call on the vhf as we started to drop our sails, but Pete told them to hold while we dropped anchor and we would call back. He had not caught who was calling us, but as we approached the anchorage, he spotted a catamaran, and recognised it as De La Mer from the AIS. We had first chatted with Barbara and Mike at Brampton Island, and then run into them later at Orpheus Island. We knew they were heading for Weipa, and wondered what their plans were from here.

Once settled, we called them up and had a good chat. Their plans from Portland Road were the exact copy of ours – tomorrow to Cape Grenville, then to Escape River, and from there around the top. We agreed to catch up en route and stay in touch, though they were going to head off very early in the morning. It was great to find someone with similar plans, as it had been getting monotonous not seeing any other boats heading north. We looked forward to a “race” the following day, which for us would be a short day at just over 40 miles, and a 15-20 knot southeaster forecast.

Portland Road

For dinner we had the wonderful Blue Spot Emperor that Pete had caught at Morris. We cooked it whole, with salt, pepper, butter, lemon and dill in the cavity, and wrapped in baking paper and foil. Served with asparagus and tomato and basil salad, we swore it was the best meal we had had all trip! Best of all, the on board garden of Dilbert and Cruising Basil 2 had contributed perfectly to our fresh green provisions!

When we got up around 0600, De La Mer was already on the horizon, and that’s how they stayed until we anchored! The breeze was a little more moderate at around 15 knots, so Pete decided to throw a line out, and about half way to Cape Grenville, a Spanish mackerel decided to jump on the line. Fantastic! That was another dinner sorted, but a lot of fish for two, so Pete called up De La Mer on the vhf, and invited them for dinner. They said yes – who could refuse freshly caught fish? Their only request was an early dinner, as they planned to leave about 0400, as the next leg to Escape River was nearly 70 Miles, and an early night would be required!

filleting the mackerel

Entry to the anchorage was interesting, with a trip through Paluma Passage, between the Home Islands and the mainland. Lucas had a good route showing deep water, but our charts showed some pretty shallow areas. In the end of course, Lucas was quite right, with a very deep Passage all the way through. We also got much further into the bay than the charts would suggest, and as a result had a very comfortable night, much better than the swell that had worked its way into Portland Road. We had a late lunch when we were anchored, eating the offcuts from the mackerel ceviche, with a salad and a fresh baked loaf of bread. Delicious! Then it was time for an afternoon nap.

Barbara and Mike headed over to us for drinks about 1630, and we had dinner about 1800. Pete did a fabulous job of BBQing the fish fillets, and Barbara had brought a salad. We had some of the fresh bread to mop up the juices and all agreed it was a very worthwhile dinner. Repleat, we waved goodby to Barbara and Mike about 2000, and after washing up, both fell into bed. Whilst we were going to have a slightly later start than De La Mer, we still wanted to get away early, as there were some interesting shallows for us to negotiate at the entrance to the Escape River. The earlier we got there the higher the tide would be, so we ended up getting away at around 0630, with De La Mer a small dot on the horizon.

The forecast was for 10-15 knots with some 20 knot bursts, but we generally saw around 15kts most of the way. We shook out the reef we had in the main for the last two days and sailed with the full main, alternating between a poled out headsail, and a non-poled out sail, depending on our angle. We were making about 8-9 knots for most of the time, so our progress was good, and we passed De La Mer at about the half way mark. We spoke to them a couple of time, and they were motor Sailing, and not enjoying it. For the whole morning, I spent the time making mozzie nets to go around our opening ports. I wanted them to be inside, to allow the window to open and close, and be easy to remove. We had some plastic ones that came with the boat, but you have to remove them to close the windows, which is a pain if it’s raining and you need to act quickly. Plus they are really difficult to put in. My solution puts Velcro around the window frame, has a shaped net with Velcro around the edge, and allows the free movement of the window, either by removing the Velcro or leaving it in place. However, this meant cutting a pattern, getting the sewing machine set up and beetling away at making four, for each of the large ports. Whilst not beautiful, I was pleased with the outcome, though I only completed three because I ran out of sew-on Velcro. The last net had stick-on Velcro, which needs to be sewn to the net to hold it in place. The sticky stuff, however, does not agree with either my sewing machine, or even hand sewing. That last one is yet to be completed.

Pete had an equally productive day, altering the lazy jacks that hold our boom bag up, so that they sit better when the sail is up or reefed. When I came up on deck to start hand sewing, Pete commented on a rather odd looking object in the water ahead and to starboard. We looked for a while, and then realised it was the extraordinary sight of two turtles “getting it on”! And yes, it looked as awkward as you would imagine! As we were making our final approach, we also had a dolphin swim in our bow wave for ages. So lovely to see, as we hadn’t seen any daily dolphins for so long. Before we knew it, we were at our destination waypoint, and needed to prepare for taking the sails down and the crossing of an unknown bar. It was about 1400 when we started our run into the Escape River entrance, and boy, oh boy was this interesting. We knew that it was a sandy bar, but the best route we had to follow was Lucas, which is of course several years old. Anything could have happened to that sand bar, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to rely on the sonar chart. So we prepared a route using the info we had, and were certain of having at least two meters over the datum, the lowest of which appeared to be two meters. This meant we should have at least 4 meters under us at any time, and the minimum we need is three. It was cutting it fine, but there was nowhere else convenient to anchor.

Apart from two patches of around five meters, we had decent depth, and decided to push on upriver to get out of the short choppy swell, and head for the “comfortable” spot recommended by Lucas. We saw plenty of pearl rafts, and passed the pearling operations buildings on the southern tip of Turtle Head Island. All went well, with decent depths until we got to the point we thought we wanted to anchor. As I did circles, waiting for Pete to open the anchor well and prepare to drop, I didn’t realise the tide was shooting me backwards at two knots. Suddenly the depth went from a comfortable seven meters rapidly towards four and then I was seeing three and a half meters. Pete yelled to go forward and I rammed the Morse forward and started to see the depth increase again. We had been swept sideways towards the bank as well as downstream, and a lesson well learned about anchoring in rivers! Once back in our favoured spot, we dropped anchor successfully, ending up midstream, but in deep water. Looking downstream, we could see De La Mer making their final approach into the reach we were anchored in, and by the time we were settled with a beer, they had anchored beside us. We had a quick radio chat about the day, and plans for tomorrow, then wished each other a pleasant evening and a good sail in the morning. We were both heading to Cape York, and hoped to meet up there. De La Mer was going to leave at the bottom of the tide, but we were going to leave it a little, and wait until the turn, hopefully riding the last of the ebb out, as the tide was starting to make at the river mouth, giving us the clearance we needed over the banks.

The new mozzie nets were great, as we could open most of the windows and keep the bugs out. There were plenty of bugs, as we were deep in mangrove creeks, and we saw bats as it got dark. Pete fished, hoping for a Barra, but lost a hook and bait, wire trace and all to something big. He said he saw a three meter shark, so whether the shark got the fish who had taken the bait, we will never know! We BBQd some more of the Spanish mackerel with a Moroccan spice rub for dinner, and had a cous cous salad with it. Delicious! After dinner we watched the stars and spotted many satellites, but it got too damp to stay up long, and we were both tired after the early start and stressful bar crossing, so we retired at about 2000.

It was a comfortable, though hot night, and we woke to some clouds and a little spot of rain, which was a relief after the punishing sun. We had coffee and breakfast before heading off, and De La Mer already disappeared downstream. The track downstream was a lot easier, using the route we had come up, but the bar crossing was harder. We took a slightly different route, which had us in shallow water for longer, and had us heading into the breeze and incoming tide. It was uncomfortable, and a huge relief to get free of it finally, and head north, putting up the sails and settling into our run up to Albany Passage. We were excited – today was the day we would round the most northerly tip of Australia!

Pearling farm on Escape river
Final chart for Cape York

2 thoughts on “Towards Cape York

  1. Good ‘ol Stanley! Glad to hear its as useful as i thought it would be. My Stanley is no longer with us. He met an unfortunate end after an aggressive confrontation with a concrete pavement.

    Keep up the good work, you’re a massive inspiration for my own circum Australia plans in a couple years.


    1. Ha ha, sorry to hear about your Stanley, especially after we looked after him for so long!
      Hope you are still getting out on the water Kirsty, and that we shall see you soon?


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